Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Rocket science, feminism, and professional attire

Here's the deal.  I graduated college, and I went to work in Houston, on the International Space Station program.  

The Mission Control Center has a series of "back rooms" where people support the on-screen teams in their work.  

I was in one of those back rooms for parts of 2A.2b (an hour of On-the-Job Training here and there), 3A (my first assigned shift), 4A, 5A, 5A.1.  I was supposed to be off for 6A, but due to circumstances I was called in to help with problem-solving.  7A, several others, 9A, 11A.  Both return to flight missions.  Possibly 12A.  I coordinated and led my team's support of 12A.1.

After space shuttle retirement in 2011, I bought the space shuttle program "We Made History" t-shirts for my whole family:

Now, in the back room, we were not expected to be on-camera.  That said, anybody and everybody could walk through, so professional attire was preferred.

In addition to my paid job, upon graduation I also took it upon myself to support as many STEM outreach events as my time and energy permitted.

I was aware of the literature on women in Math and Science from a very early age.  The literature influenced my choice of high school.  When I moved to Huntsville, I began intensely studying the literature on women in STEM, women in geek fandom, and women in leadership.

If you follow me on Twitter, you'll have seen some of the Tweets this past week, about a certain shirt that appeared on camera.  In fact, Phil Plait wrote an excellent article that includes photos: Shirtstorm

My understanding is that the fabric for his shirt was based off of 1) the WWII-era "pin-up" art that was painted on military aircraft, and 2) the Heavy Metal comics or movie.

1) I've blogged about being a military Brat.  I went to many, many air shows when I was growing up.  The paint on airplanes made me uncomfortable as a girl.

Can it be empowering, as I have heard that some of the "pin-up" art of that era was?  I'm sure it could.  I know that sex-positive feminism is a thing.  I'm also aware of criticism of that movement.  I'll tell you straight up that I enjoy sex with my husband, I believe that sex is a beautiful thing.  Beyond that... I believe discussions of sexuality and feminism need to continue.

2) I'm also a hard-core geek.  As an undergraduate, I was involved with a weekly role-playing club, similar to Dungeons & Dragons.  We had enough regular attendees to run between 3 and 5 tables of ~8-10 adventures, players would sign up for the Gamemaster "hook" that most interested them.

Many adventures were based on movies or comic book tropes.  Some included a small flying ball, from Heavy Metal.  Does Heavy Metal objectify women?  Absolutely.  Now, does that make it wrong to like Heavy Metal?

The sad reality of life, is that MOST science fiction, fantasy, video games, and comic-book-related media objectifies women.  The problematic material reflects our toxic culture.

And yet, I am a geek.  I love science fiction, fantasy, Marvel Cinematic Universe...

Hat tip?  Here is an EXCELLENT blogpost (not mine) to read about fandom:
How to be a fan of problematic things

So... Does Matt Taylor's enjoyment of Heavy Metal make him a sexist pig?  Absolutely not.  I think it would be fine for him to wear the shirt to the bar when he celebrates the landing.  However, wearing it on-screen for his interview was inappropriate.

The problem is exactly as Phil Plait described it.  It's never JUST a shirt.  One shirt doesn't turn girls off of STEM.  It is the long, slow accumulation of sexist media, sexist comments, and dismissive attitudes that turn girls away from STEM, and cause women to leave the industry.  This Verizon ad captures it well:

So, can you please STOP hounding my friends?

Updated to add:
Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics, and related humanities positions are spread thin and far between.  I spent three years as the only woman on my team, and it may happen again in my career. Quit attacking the ones who are.

Because if WE get this kind of backlash, over a shirt, what kind of backlash will there be about more serious problems with the STEM workplace?

[Update 5/4/2015] I wrote an update to this post: Update on Science and Fashion, aka: Why can't we have nice things?